Over the last two years, urban landscapes have been marred by a growing number of companies offering street-side scooters for rent. The business model always seemed a little curious, especially as additional players moved into the market. It wasn’t long before plenty of cities had their sidewalks littered with scooters in various states of disrepair and thrill-seekers were using them to dive through traffic, thus frustrating motorists.
They also have to be shared with your neighbors, making them none-too-appeasing in an era where everyone is obsessively washing their hands to avoid the coronavirus. Combine that with cities asking (sometimes demanding) that citizens remain indoors and you can probably guess where this is all going. Scooter providers, already in the delicate position of being “mobility” companies, are reeling things back in.
It’s one of those scenarios that brings to mind William Gibson’s maxim about the future being unevenly distributed. About 90 days ago, approximately 1,000 Chinese-made electric scooters appeared more or less overnight around Santa Monica and Venice in California. Each scooter featured an individual QR code and directions to download the “BIRD” app. With that app, anybody with a credit card and a California driver’s license could “unlock” the scooter and ride it anywhere in the area. The cost? One dollar to start, and 15 cents a minute.
Seemingly overnight, the beach paths and access roads of Santa Monica were overrun with people whipping along at the BIRD top speed of 22 miles per hour. Quite a few of them got hurt. The city of Santa Monica was very unhappy. Apparently the BIRD deployment had happened without notice — and without so much as a vendor’s license application. They sued BIRD for operating a business without a permit. Worse than that, they deployed the cops to issue tickets to anybody breaking any law on a BIRD, from operation without a helmet to parking on a right of way.
BIRD paid $300,000 in fines, limited the speed of the scooters to 15 mph, and started “cracking down” on underage riders. But the BIRDs remain controversial, to say the least. Naturally, the minute I heard about these things I figured I’d better high-tail it to Venice for some BIRD time of my own. As everybody knows, Los Angeles is the home of Motor Trend, a magazine where rumor says the editorial staff is not permitted to test the cars on track, so I figured I’d honor that tradition by bringing a test driver who has won races on both two wheels and four to operate the BIRD at its very limit.